I had read numerous posts online about police corruption and scams in Laos. State workers in Laos, including police and teachers, are very much underpaid and sometimes not even paid for months at a time, so corruption is one way that they can earn a liveable wage, namely targeting unsuspecting tourists and backpackers.
The vibe given in Laos is that the police turn a blind eye to drugs, especially as they are openly sold on menus in bars, in milkshakes and on pizzas. I saw this particularly in Vang Vieng, which is a big backpacker party destination and had a bar which had a separate ‘happy menu’ where you can order drugs which included marijuana, MDMA, opium and mushrooms.
I never thought this would never happen to me, let alone someone I knew. But the sad truth is that you don’t even have to have drugs on you to be a victim of police corruption and scams in Laos.
My friend Jay from Belgium unfortunately had to learn this the hard way.
Jay had just been sitting and talking with his friend Ron on the street and smoking cigarettes at around 11pm at night. Two people approached them on mopeds and told them that they were undercover agents and wanted to check their bags for weed. They did not find anything in Jay’s bag and in Ron’s bag they found rolling tobacco, which they claimed was a mix of tobacco and weed, which it was not. It became apparent that they were falling victim to the famed police corruption and scams in Laos.
Meanwhile, the ‘agents’ had called a police pick up, which arrived to take Jay and Ron to the police station. Jay said he was shaking with fear in the back of the police car and Ron held his hand to try and calm him down.
“The only thing I thought in the car was that they would kidnap me”
When they arrived at the police station Ron and Jay were made to sit in separate rooms. Jay asked five times if he could call his friends to at least let them know where he was, but they had taken his things including his phone and would not give them back.
They interrogated Ron for an hour and left Jay sitting outside waiting for his turn whilst being intimidated by other officers.
“I sat there for an hour shaking with stress and anxiety and I was repeatedly told by an officer that I would spend the night in jail”
After they had finished with Ron it was Jay’s turn in the interrogation room. As Ron passed Jay the officer said to Jay: “Your friend is going to sleep in his hostel now and you will spend the night in jail.”
When Jay walked into the interrogation room there were two officers sitting behind the desk, and on the desk was a security belt with a bag of marijuana sitting on top of it. Jay later found out that Ron had been wearing a security belt with weed in it, which he did not know about as Ron had neither told him, nor offered him any as they had only been smoking cigarettes.
“It’s my country, so my rules”
The two officers said that they had seen Jay and Ron smoking a joint on the side of the road. Jay denied it a dozen times but the more he said it the more aggressive they became, shouting “you will spend the night in jail”, that he was a “bad guy” and “your friend told us that this is your bag of marijuana” *(he hadn’t). The police officer continued to shout: “It’s my country, so my rules. You are a liar. I can see it in your face that you smoked and I can smell it.” They said that they would test Jay to see if he had taken drugs or not and that he would be in more trouble if they found out he had lied. This really scared Jay as he had in fact had one puff of a joint three days previously when tubing.
“You’re a liar”
“You will get in more trouble if you say you don’t smoke and lie to us”
“Make a big problem a small problem and say you smoked”
Jay was very scared and the police officer then tried a different approach. “I don’t want to stop your holiday,” he said “just make a big problem a small problem and say you smoked.” After being in the interrogation room for over an hour it was 2 am by this point and the police officer was now fed up. They got the handcuffs out to put on Jay and it was then he realised that they would release him if he just said he had smoked, so he admitted that he had smoked three days ago. Once he had admitted this the officers became a lot calmer. They made Jay write out a “confession”, sign it and on every page they put his finger print.
Once they had Jay’s “confession” they asked for his passport which was back at the hostel. They drove him back to the hostel but kept his phone until he returned out with his passport. Once they had his passport they said that he could pick it up from 6 am, by this point it was 4 am.
Now that they had Jay’s passport they had all the power.
Personally, I had just returned from the Vang Vieng bars to find Jay distraught and scared and all my other friends consoling him. Jay said that the police officers kept using English law terms which he did not understand and he was scared to go back to the police station on his own, so I offered to go with him as support, along with his best friend Eva. So off I went to bed, setting my alarm for 6 am, which said it would ring in one hour.
Getting back the passport
We walked to the police station through a deserted and peaceful Vang Vieng and when we arrived the police station was closed. The cleaning lady went inside to tell them to open up and we sat inside waiting for a police officer, expecting it to be a different officer. An officer came down the stairs, doing up the top button of his shirt and Jay said that this was the officer from last night. I couldn’t believe that he was sleeping upstairs and back on duty after only a couple of hours sleep, but I guess this is only testament to the poor working conditions that officers face.
The officer wanted to speak to Jay again in the interrogation room and he was very afraid to go back in there, but after a couple of minutes Eva and I were allowed to join. The officer had wanted Jay to pay 10 million kip, which amounts to about £860 / €1,000 / $1,125, but if he admitted again to the charges it would be brought down to 5 million kip, which he did. The fine was still €500 which you cannot even draw out of Laos ATMs due to a daily withdrawal limit of 2 million kip. We protested this price, but the police officer, who was a young guy, said firmly that if Jay did not pay then he would go to jail for two years instead. The choice was his.
When we came back with the money he wanted to give Jay one last lecture, which went along the lines of “You come to my country and take drugs, it is illegal here as it is in yours, yet you still do it. You got off lightly and you could have gone to prison instead, but I do not want to cut your holiday short. You are lucky.”
“I can tell you for sure that this was the most terrifying night of my life, I have never felt so unsafe and powerless. I will never forget this and feel like I have suffered a trauma”
I really felt for Jay as he personally had no drugs on him and was unaware that Ron did. The police also got lucky with Ron that he in fact did have drugs on him, even though on the face of it they could not possibly have known that he did as he was also only smoking a cigarette. Is this corruption? Yes because that money most probably went in the police officer’s pocket. Unjust? Perhaps not for Ron because at the end of the day he was in possession of drugs, but for Jay, yes because he was not smoking weed and had none on his person. A scam? For sure as local bars who sell drugs are quite often cooperating with the police. They sell you drugs and then the police wait to pick you up outside. The people on mopeds who first approached Jay probably scan the streets for backpackers and tourists to see who they can target. But that’s police corruption and scams in Laos for you, and I hope this will serve as a warning for those looking to travel to Laos and other parts of South East Asia. It may seem like a relaxed place when it comes to drugs, but it most certainly is not.